One of the best ways to judge the health of the economy is to track housing starts. As a general rule of thumb, strong growth in housing starts means strong pickup truck sales.
According to the U.S. Commerce Department, housing starts were up 18.3 percent in 2013, the best performance since 2007. Pickup truck sales followed, increasing 12 percent. American full-size trucks performed even better, increasing 17.8 percent. By comparison, the entire automotive market was up 7.5 percent.
The best performer of the bunch was also America's best-selling vehicle, the Ford F-Series, and the Chevrolet Silverado came in at No. 2. With so many sales on the line, the domestic automakers are constantly improving their trucks. In fact, the top three best-selling pickups have all been completely redesigned within the past two years. The theme for all of these trucks is the same: improve fuel economy while adding refinement and high-end luxury models.
Let's take a look at each of the domestic full-size truck brands to see how they are attacking a changing pickup market.
The F-Series is the king of the truck market. It's been the best-selling truck in America for 37 consecutive years and the best-selling vehicle in America for 32. The success continued in 2013 as F-Series sales were up 18.3 percent.
Despite that success, Ford is looking to the future. At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month, Ford made the biggest news of the show by unveiling the aluminum-bodied 2015 F-150. The aluminum body will save up to 700 pounds of weight, which should improve handling, towing and hauling capability, and fuel economy.
The base 3.7-liter V6 and top-end 6.2-liter V8 will also be dropped as Ford adds a new 3.5-liter V6, and more significantly, a turbocharged 2.7-liter V6. This engine should be efficient in its own right, but it will also add auto start/stop technology for even more fuel savings. EPA fuel economy numbers for the 2.7 haven't been announced, but they should be at or near the top of the class.
These engines will join the 5.0-liter V8 and 3.5-liter turbocharged V6 that were added to the lineup for the 2011 model year. The 5.0 is more fuel efficient than the 4.6-liter engine it replaced and the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 offers V8 power with fuel economy as high as 16 mpg city/22 highway. Many think the 3.5 EcoBoost is the best pickup engine on the market, even better than the competitors' V8s.
Luxury is on the rise at Ford, too. Ford introduced the idea of the luxury pickup with the Harley-Davidson edition in 1999. In recent years, Ford has offered more high-end trucks. Ford considers the Lariat, King Ranch, Limited, and Platinum models to fit this definition, and a company spokesman says those models make up more than 30 percent of F-Series sales.
The 2015 F-150 will offer the Lariat, Platinum and King Ranch models, and all models promise higher quality cabins with more soft-touch materials. Watch for the 2015 Ford F-150 late this year at Art Hill Ford in Merrillville, Barile Ford in Valparaiso, Lakeshore Ford in Burns Harbor, Paul Heuring Ford in Hobart, Smith Ford in Lowell, and Webb Ford in Highland.
"It's going to be a huge hit," said Pete Blagojevic, general manage at Art Hill Ford. "It's good looking. It's 700 pounds lighter than its predecessor. The technology is unbelievable. It's been the best selling truck for 37 years and the new one will keep that run going."
Ram, formerly Dodge, has been a perennial underdog in the pickup wars but a strong 2013 redesign has made the Ram 1500 far more competitive than in the past. Though the Ram is still third in half-ton pickup sales behind Ford and Chevrolet, sales were up an impressive 21.2 percent in 2013.
Ram also took home the hardware to prove it has arrived, winning the Motor Trend Truck of the Year for both the 2013 and 2014 model years and nabbing the 2013 North American Truck of the Year award from a panel of automotive journalists.
The proof is in the product. The Ram's 2013 redesign made it the most refined pickup on the market, thanks to a quiet, high-quality interior and a smooth ride aided by a coil-spring (instead of leaf spring) rear suspension.
The redesign also gave the 1500 several features to improve fuel economy, including active grille shutters, a new 3.6-liter V6 engine and an 8-speed automatic transmission. That combination delivers a class best 18 mpg city/25 highway in the HFE model. For the 2014 model year, Ram has also added a turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 diesel engine that should be rated even higher. This is the first diesel engine offered in a half-ton pickup since 1987.
Ram hasn't released fuel economy numbers, but we expect figures along the lines of 19 mpg city/27 highway. Unfortunately, there is quite a price premium for the diesel. It costs $2,850 more than the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 and a whopping $4,500 more than the 3.6-liter V6. Ram trucks are available at Bosak Ram in Merrillville, Bobb Auto Ram in Cedar Lake, Greigers Ram in Valparaiso and Thomas Ram in Highland.
General Motors redesigned the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups for the 2014 model year and released them last spring. It was a well-timed product update, as the Ram's redesign had left the GM trucks far behind the competition in terms of refinement. Both trucks are far better than the outgoing models, with improved handling, higher quality interior materials and cabins that are even quieter than the Ram's. The Chevrolet Silverado also gets a new line-topping model, the High Country, to take advantage of the luxury pickup trend. The GMC Sierra continues with its high-end Denali model.
GM has dropped its hybrid pickups, but both trucks get three all-new engines. The new 4.3-liter V6, 5.3-liter V8, and 6.2-liter V8 are all the same size as the engines they replace, but they add both power and fuel efficiency thanks to the addition of variable valve timing, direct injection and cylinder deactivation.
According to Chevrolet Communications head Tom Wilkinson, truck buyers want all the capability they can get, plus improved fuel economy
"355 horsepower, 10,500 pounds of towing capacity and 23 mpg on the highway all go hand in hand," said Wilkinson, referring to the stats for the new 5.3-liter V8.
The redesign has proven fruitful. Silverado sales were up 14.8 percent last year, and it won the 2014 North American Truck of the Year award. Sierra is selling well, too.
"December was the best truck month we had all year," said Steve Ogrentz, sales manager at Schepel GMC in Merrillville. "It's hard to get these trucks. They are still gold."
The Sierra is also available at Circle GMC in Highland, Harbor GMC in Portage, Paul Sur GMC in Valparaiso and Wiers GMC in DeMotte. You can see the Silverado at Arnell Chevrolet in Burns Harbor, Christenson Chevrolet in Highland, Harbor Chevrolet in Michigan City, Mike Anderson Chevy in Merrillville, Smith Chevrolet in Hammond and Lowell, Team Chevrolet in Valparaiso, and Weirs Chevrolet in Demotte.
The quality of Ford, GM, and Ram pickups is known worldwide. The good news is they are getting even better, with more luxury, better fuel economy, and more capability. Americans are responding by buying them in numbers not matched since prior to the Great Recession.
Like housing starts, truck sales were strong in 2013 and we should expect more of the same in 2014. As Ford truck communications manager Mike Levine put it, "What's good for trucks is definitely good for the American economy."